The Nationalist Lion Roars at Westminster!
Sunday Mail, July 19th 2015
The times are changing in Scotland and Britain: the SNP impact at Westminster; Tory maneouvres to hurt, harm and trap Labour on union reform and welfare, and the vacuum of Labour and Lib Dems post-election defeat.
The SNP scored early blood on fox-hunting and English votes for English laws – forcing government postponement on the first and regrouping and redrafting on the second. This has produced Tory anger and fury at the Nationalists, and eventually see the Tories attempt to get their revenge.
A significant part of the SNP’s impact has been due to the marginalising of the Labour and Lib Dem opposition, both parties licking their wounds and without leaderships for the last two months. The Lib Dems have rectified that this week, electing Tim Farron. Labour’s contest has shown the nadir the party has fallen to, and the dullness of the three mainstream candidates: all of which has produced the unlikely summer sensation of Jeremy Corbyn’s sudden rise in popularity.
The SNP presence is being felt everywhere – physically in the House of Commons chamber, in the media, making interventions, buzzing with energy and ambition. Characters and reputations are being made.
They are fitting into how Scotland has historically seen and done Westminster – acting as the collective voice of Scotland’s interests – winning concessions and harrying opponents. It is something Liberals and Labour used to know how to do – but failed to adapt to under devolution.
An important part in this so far has been the SNP maiden speeches. First to make an impact was Tommy Sheppard, former deputy leader of a London Labour council, assistant general secretary of Scottish Labour, and comedy club owner. He had grace, style and humour.
Even better was Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old vanquisher of Douglas Alexander. Her speech echoed with passion and political intelligence. It drew numerous plaudits and even indignation – with some in Labour furious she cited Tony Benn.
Political rhetoric is under-estimated by many today. It matters. It conveys intent and authenticity (or not). There are similarities between the SNP 56 and the ‘Red Clydesiders’ of 1922 – the intake of Glasgow and West of Scotland Labour MPs who heralded Labour’s arrival as a national party of Scotland.
Both groups are obviously Scottish, outsiders, have principles, and believe in the power of the word and rhetoric. The story of the ‘Red Clydesiders’ is illustrative. John Wheatley, James Maxton and others contributed to the rise of Labour and it becoming a governmental force, and in Wheatley’s case, the Housing Act of 1924, and the achievement of council housing across Britain.
They became quickly exhausted, fell prey to factionalism, and a group of them – led by Maxton – walked off into the wilderness in the 1930s, establishing the Independent Labour Party as a separate, but impotent force.
The above won’t happen to the SNP. For a start, they have no aspirations to form a UK Government. But it was said of the ‘Red Clydesiders’ that Westminster changed them more than they changed Westminster. Today’s outsiders can easily become tomorrow’s insiders, and Westminster has always been good at neutering rebels.
There is something fundamental shifting on with the rise of the SNP. It shows the importance of value-driven, grounded politics. SNP politicians have a core set of beliefs centred on independence in the way that Labour used to believe in the cause of socialism.
The empty Labour leadership contest is a warning. Jeremy Corbyn aside Labour politicians today talk a managerial language. SNP politicians can draw on a deeper hinterland. Alan Finlayson, Professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia has studied political rhetoric and comments that ‘SNP politicians come across as more authentic’ whereas ‘Labour politicians market a personality, hold a line and repeat ad nauseum a phrase.’ This can ‘matter long term or in key moments’ he thinks ‘giving yourself definition or mobilising people.’
Finlayson argues that decades of such language has produced a Labour Party which has demotivated and demoralised itself – practically as a conscious collective act of self-denial and control. Little surprise then this has led to a loss of Labour confidence, and demobilises voters. The SNP’s approach, with its link between the personal and wider political, has worked in the opposite direction, motivating and mobilising people.
There has to be a relationship between action and words. Ramsay MacDonald was once seen as a radical before he went off with the Tories. Gordon Brown could still talk the talk in the indyref and elsewhere, but it had little connection to his record in office.
Scottish, British and global politics are in transition. The old left assumptions are dying. The bright young promise of the free market radicals has completely failed, but is still dominant, being the only ideological show in town.
The SNP have made a good start at Westminster. But they will have to avoid the tactical traps of the Tories and Labour, both out for revenge, for different reasons.
The most difficult challenges still await. The SNP need to deliver more powers, protect Scotland as much as possible, not get sucked into the Westminster village, and advance their long-term goal of independence. That will requires many different shades of politics and rhetoric: from fury and rage, to nuance and empathy and making tactical and strategic alliances. ‘The Scottish Lion’ has so far shown that it can talk and be very human.